Home renovators and DIYers will be at increased risk of contracting an asbestos-related disease if the peak national body for raising public awareness of the deadly mineral is chopped or has its budget slashed, warn asbestos disease support groups, doctors, lawyers and consumer advocates.
The annual budget of the Asbestos Eradication and Safety Agency [AESA] is under review and there are fears the independent organisation will be wound back in favour of a smaller unit operating within the Department of Employment.
"The agency was created with bipartisan support to do a very important job but I am worried that there has not been a proper budget committed for the next operational year," said Peter Tighe, CEO of the agency. "Minister [Michaelia] Cash is now reviewing what the agency should do and what funding it should receive".
"Some in politics do not support an independent agency," said Mr Tighe. "We don't have a proper budget for the next financial year".
Any Australian home built or renovated before 1990 is likely to contain asbestos, with one in three homes containing the deadly material, according to national figures. The home renovation boom, fuelled by high property prices and decorating shows on TV, is exposing a new generation to asbestos-related diseases, said Mr Tighe. This "third wave" of exposure means that the incidence of mesothelioma and lung cancers will not peak until 2030.
On the eve of National Asbestos Awareness Week (from November 27) and the 10th anniversary of Bernie Banton's death on Monday, the AESA has warned about the rising risk of illegal imports of asbestos from China, India and Russia, which is still mining and manufacturing the lethal material in massive quantities. "If we don't control this, we'll end up with a second legacy of asbestos," said Mr Tighe.
"The most pressing issue now is asbestos in our homes, which is outside the scope of the Department of Employment," said compensation lawyer Tanya Segelov. "We have no regulation in relation to asbestos in our homes apart from limited regulation in the ACT."
"Here is a federal agency that has managed to get all the states and territories together to create a national strategic plan for dealing with asbestos," said Barry Robson, president of the Asbestos Diseases Foundation of Australia. "It has raised issues of illegal dumping of asbestos, illegal imports of asbestos cladding into Australia, has set up a national annual conference and has done international work."
"Unless you believe in the asbestos fairy who will remove all this deadly material from our built environment, we're actually going to need to have an adult conversation about strategies in the years ahead," said Ms Segelov. "And the Agency (AESA) is integral to that".
"What we are asking for is small beer in the scheme of government funding, about $4 million a year," said Mr Tighe.
A spokesperson for Ms Cash, Minister for Employment, said in a statement: "AESA has been provided with additional funding of $3.4 million over the last 2 financial years and we remain committed to ensuring the agency continues to be properly resourced."
The Great Australian Nightmare in Saturday's Good Weekend.